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Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway—Part I

On September 7,2009, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan signed what was called the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, purporting to introduce administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms in the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir, which has been under Pakistani occupation since 1947-48. The order re-names the Northern Areas as Gilgit-Baltistan, thereby seeking to obliterate the linkage of the area with Jammu & Kashmir.

2. Addressing a press conference the same day, the President of the Gilgit-Baltistan branch of the Pakistan People’s Party ( PPP) Syed Mehdi Shah said that Zardari had instructed the authorities concerned to prepare a comprehensive plan to accelerate economic development in Gilgit-Baltistan. He claimed that the Zardari Government had given internal freedom and all financial, democratic, administrative, judicial, political and developmental powers to the Legislative Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan. He said that a Gilgit-Baltistan Council, to be headed by the Prime Minister, would be set up and that Zardari had ordered the early initiation of a Gilgit-Skardu road project, the establishment of regional branches of the National Bank of Pakistan, the National Database and Registration Authority and the House Building Finance Corporation in the area.

3. Explaining the changes sought to be introduced by the Government in the status of the area to the media, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani stated as follows on August 29,2009:

  1. “All the stakeholders were taken on board prior to getting the approval from the Cabinet to give internal and political autonomy to the Northern Areas, which shall be now called Gilgit-Baltistan.”

  2. The Foreign Office was consulted on it and they have cleared it. “Every aspect was taken care of.”

  3. The Cabinet decision will empower the Gilgit-Baltistan Council and the Assembly to make laws. “The subjects about which the Assembly shall now have power to make law have been increased from 49 to 61 while the Council shall have 55 subjects.”

  4. There will be a Governor for Gilgit-Baltistan, who will be appointed by the President of Pakistan. Till the election of the Legislative Assembly, the Minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas will be acting as the Governor. “There will be a Chief Minister, who shall be elected by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and will be assisted by six Ministers with the provision of two advisers.”

  5. The Legislative Assembly will have 24 members, who will be elected directly and in addition, there will be six women and three technocrat seats. In order to empower the Council and the Assembly on financial matters there would be a consolidated fund.The budget of the area would be presented and approved by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly.

  6. The Chief Judge of the Appellate Court will be appointed by the Chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council on the advice of the Governor, and other judges will be appointed by the Chairman on the advice of the Governor after seeking the views of the Chief Judge.The number of judges will be increased from three to five.

  7. A Gilgit-Baltistan Public Service Commission, a separate Auditor-General and an Election Commissioner will be appointed.

  8. Answering a question, Gilani said under the Constitution, the Northern Areas could be given the status of a province, “but we have given them internal autonomy as per the Constitution.”

  9. Answering another question, he said Gilgit-Baltistan could not be given representation in Parliament. Responding to a query, the Minister for Information, Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas Qamar Zaman Kaira said the measures would be enforced through a presidential order replacing the Legal Framework Order of l994.

4. In an article on the subject titled “The Gilgit-Baltistan Bungle” published by the “News”, on September 10,Asif Ezdi, a retired officer of the Pakistan Foreign Service, stated, inter alia, as follows: “The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, approved by the Cabinet on Aug 29 seeks to grant self-rule to the people of the area on the pattern of the autonomy enjoyed by Azad Kashmir. As the Government itself admits, the promulgation of this Order, which has now been signed by Zardari, implies a rejection of the demand that Gilgit-Baltistan be made a province of Pakistan and that its people be given the same constitutional rights, including representation in the National Assembly and the Senate. The reason given by the Government is that acceptance of these demands would go against Pakistan’s obligations under UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, which give Islamabad administrative powers over the territory but debar any change in its status.

“Given this self-imposed constraint, the Government had only limited room for action. It could only make those changes in the constitutional structure of Gilgit-Baltistan which would devolve more powers to the people of the territory, but not affect its international status. The last two constitutional measures adopted by the Government for the Northern Areas – in 2000 and 2007 – had also sought to give more powers to the elected Assembly within this constraint. The scope for further devolution was thus quite small. It is therefore no wonder that the changes introduced by the latest constitutional package are by no means of a radical nature.

“The most significant change is that a Council has been set up on the same pattern as exists in Azad Kashmir. It will have the power to legislate on more or less the same subjects as the Azad Kashmir Council. The federal Government will have a built-in majority in the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, as in the Azad Kashmir Council. The practical consequence is that legislation on these matters will continue to be controlled by Islamabad.

“Some of the changes made in the new law are cosmetic, such as renaming the Chairman as Governor, the chief executive as Chief Minister and advisers as Ministers. On the one hand, the new designations seek to highlight similarities with a province; and on the other hand, they underscore difference from Azad Kashmir.

“Since the purpose is to equate Gilgit-Baltistan with Azad Kashmir, the Government needs also to do two more things. One, it should rename the new legal framework for Gilgit-Baltistan as the Interim Constitution, just as the fundamental law of Azad Kashmir is called. Two, the new constitutional package should be passed by the elected Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan, just as the Azad Kashmir Interim Constitution was passed by the elected Assembly of Azad Kashmir, instead of being promulgated through executive fiat.

“The concerns of Kashmiris are two-fold. First, their position has been that Gilgit-Baltistan is part of Jammu and Kashmir and cannot accede to Pakistan separately from the rest of the state. Second, Kashmiri leaders have expressed the fear that the accession of Gilgit-Baltistan would be taken as Pakistan’s acquiescence in the permanent partition of Kashmir and would harm the freedom struggle. Such misgivings have been voiced by Yasin Malik ( of the J&K Liberation Front) and by some political circles in Azad Kashmir.

“Typically, the new law was not presented before its adoption for public or parliamentary debate. Instead, the Government only held some closed-door briefings for the parliamentary committee concerned and a few selected leaders from the Northern Areas. Representatives of Azad Kashmir and the APHC were not consulted. The Government clearly still treats the matter as a bureaucratic issue to be tackled bureaucratically.”

5. MY COMMENTS: The Northern Areas of J&K, now re-named as Gilgit-Baltistan in violation of the UN resolutions by the Zardari Government has a total area of 28,000 sq.miles as against the only 4494 sq.miles of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), which Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir. It had a population of a little over 1.5 million in the 1990s. It was part of the State of J&K before 1947 and was called “the Northern Areas of J&K” to distinguish it from the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh.

6. In 1935, Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of J&K, transferred the territory on a 60-year lease to the British authorities from whom it reverted back to the ruler under the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Upon its reversion, the ruler appointed Brig. Ghansara Singh as the “Governor of the Northern Areas of J&K” with headquarters at Gilgit. During 1947-48, the Pakistan Army illegally occupied the entire Northern Areas and parts of the Districts of Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad.

7. The Government of Pakistan constituted the occupied areas of Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad into the so-called autonomous State of Azad Kashmir. The Northern Areas were separated from the POK by a proclamation of April 28,1949, and placed directly under the administration of the Federal Government under the changed name of the “Northern Areas of Pakistan”. Before doing so, it transferred some territory of the Northern Areas in the present Chitral region to the jurisdiction of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The suffx “of J&K” was deleted because Pakistan no longer considered the Northern Areas as part of J&K though it continued to say that its future, like that of POK and India’s J&K, would be decided by a plebiscite under the auspices of the UN. In 1963, the Government of military dictator Ayub Khan ceded to China under a 99-year-lease 6000 sq.miles of Kashmiri territory from the NA— that is, nearly, one-fourth of the NA territory. This has been incorporated by China into the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

8. In 1982, Gen.Zia-ul-Haq proclaimed that the people of the NA were Pakistanis and not Kashmiris and that its future had nothing to do with that of J&K. However, his successors as rulers retained the fiction that the future of the NA would be decided under a plebiscite along with that of J&K and the POK.

9. The NA is divided into six districts called Hunza-Nager, Gilgit, Koh-e-Ghizer, Ghanche, Diamir and Skardu. These districts are grouped into three agencies or Divisions called Diamir with headquarters at Chilas, Gilgit with headquarters in Gilgit Town and Baltistan with headquarters in Skardu Town. Of the total population of the NA, 50 per cent used to be Shias, 25 per cent Ismailis, who are close to the Shias, and the remainig 25 per cent Sunnis. While the Sunnis were in a preponderant majprity in the POK, they were in a minority in the NA. The Sunnis were in a majority in the Diamir District and in a minority in the remaining five districts.

10. Under Zia, a programme was initiated to change the demographic composition of the NA and reduce the Shia-Ismaili preponderant majority by re-settling a large number of Sunni ex-servicemen —-Punjabis as well as Pashtuns— in the NA. This policy has been continued by subsequent Governments.No authentic census has been held in the NA and the POK and the results released to the public. As a result, one does not know the demographic composition of the present population of the NA and the POK.But the systematic Punjabi-Pashtun colonisation of the NA and the POK—-which is similar to the Han colonisation of Xinjiang— has reduced the percentage of ethnic Kashmiris in both POK and the NA and the number of Shias and Ismailis in the NA.

11. It is this attempt to change the demographic composition of the NA population and reduce the Shias-Ismailis to a minority in their traditional homeland that led to the start of a movement for a separate and autonomous —-not independent— Shia province to be called the Karakoram province when Zia was in power. The ruthless suppression of this Shia-Ismaili movement by Zia and the resentment over his actions played a role in the crash of the plane in which he was travelling from Bahawalpur to Islamabad in August,1988, resulting in his mysterious death. Even though no proper enquiry was held into the plane crash, very reliable reports received by the Indian intelligence at that time had indicated that the plane crash was caused by a resentful Shia airman from Gilgit who released a can of some harmful gas in the cockpit thereby disorienting the crew.

12. The NA is one of the least developed areas of Pakistan. Successive Pakistani Governments took no interest in its development because of its Shia-Ismaili majority. Whatever development took place in the area was because of the interest of the Aga Khans, who started a number of rural development projects for the welfare of the Ismailis. The Sunnis, with the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) in the forefront, started a campaign against the Aga Khans by projecting them as Western agents and anti-Islam.

13. The local Shias drew their subsistence from tourism and the Armed Forces, which they used to join in large numbers. There was a time when many of the airmen in the Pakistani Air Force were Shias from Gilgit. After the crash of the plane carrying Zia, the Pakistani Armed Forces drastically reduced the recruitment of Shias from the NA into the Armed Forces thereby adding to unemployment.

14. Next to tourism and military service, Government service attracted a number of Shias. Punjabis and Pashtuns serving in the Government service in the NA received a 25 per cent extra allowance to which the locals were not entitled. This added to the resentment. Whereas the Mirpuris from the POK have been able to migrate in large numbers to the West from where they support their families, this avenue is not open to the natives of the NA because they require an exit permit for going abroad which is rarely issued. (12-9-09)— (continued in Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway—Part II)

( The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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